Chiloe - The Quest for (Liquor of) Gold

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Chile  , Isla Chiloe,
Friday, April 30, 2010

Before I left for Argentina, I told myself "Do not drink any unknown, homemade liquor offered to me by strangers." Yet there I was, on the side of the road outside the Chiloe National Park, taking swigs of some yellowish liquor from a bottle wrapped in a plastic bag offered to me by an older Argentine couple from a city near Buenos Aires. 

I also said I would lose 10 pounds on this trip, but that hasn't happened either.

The day started with a morning bus to the Chiloe National Park – Monique and I were joined with our friends Melissa and Bevin.  Our bus took us south to the town of Chonchi, then across the width of Chiloe to the small village of Cucao on the Pacific Coast.

We hoped to hike a 10-hour trail hugging the coast line, but we couldn’t find the trailhead.  The trails were poorly marked, so we decided to take the one well-tread path we could find.  It turned out to be a lovely little hike – we walked along some covered forested areas, which opened up into grassland before reaching the Pacific Ocean.   As we crossed the grassland, we ran into a herd of horses that seemed to blur the line between domesticated and feral, and after about a mile or so reached the beach.

The beach itself wasn’t particularly pretty, but as we walked along it, we found ourselves climbing in elevation and shortly reached some bluffs offering impressive views of the ocean and the ocean inlet in front of us.  We snapped a couple of photos and soaked in the scenery, but had literally run out of trail.

When we returned to the main entrance of the park, all of the park “rangers” vanished.  I’m not sure if they took an extended lunch or if today was a half day, but we were stuck.  The maps they gave were hard to read – and literally wrong – and we couldn’t find another living soul to ask for guidance.

At this point, with a touch of despair, Monique, Melissa, Bevin, and I found a spot on the side of the road, drank some water, and discussed what to do next. 

After a few minutes, we heard a car rolling down the street – the first one we had seen in quite some time.  The car pulled over, and middle aged Argentine couple stepped out asking us for directions back to Chonchi.  We chatted for a bit.  I told them where I was from (God bless them, Philadelphia seemed like an exotic destination in their minds) and where we had traveled in Chile (they were envious that we saw the Torres del Paine, they’ve been wanting to go for years).  They told me to make sure to see the Argentine Northwest (which was good news, since the region was already on our itinerary) and not to miss the penas in Salta. 

Then the discussion turned to Chiloe.  After I rambled about curanto and licor de oro for a few moments, the Argentine gentlemen abruptly left for the trunk of his car.  I wasn’t sure if I had somehow offended him, but I figured it couldn’t have been that bad or he wouldn’t have left me chatting with his wife in the meantime. 

He returned with a plastic bag filled with a yellow liquid and a big shit-eating grin on his face.

 Chiloe – and the town of Conchi in particular – is famous for their liquors.  As was explained to me by our guide from the previous day, Sergio, Chilotes will create liquors out of just about anything – berries, chocolate, herbs, eggs, even twigs.  Licor de Oro is the most famous.  I can’t tell you what the exact recipe entails (it varies considerably from house to house), but it basically it’s comprised of milk, grain alcohol, eggs, and a variety of sweet spices (cinnamon, vanilla, etc).  There may also be a few additional ingredients I’m missing as well.  During the fermentation process, the cloudiness of the milk is somehow removed, resulting in a yellow, golden color.  The resulting liquor is sweet, flavorful, and smooth without being overpowering.   It has a real pleasant texture and is not particularly strong…my guess would be somewhere between 20 and 30 percent alcohol.

The Argentine gentlemen smiled at me and said, “You mentioned licor de oro.  Would you like to try some?”

I responded, “No thank you, I couldn’t.”

“Nonsense!” he replied, unscrewing the cap on the bottle – but keeping on the plastic bag – and handing it to me.

I smelled the bottle – it smelled sweet and overripe – and returned it to its rightful owner.  “It smells great, but I don’t have a glass on me,” I said.

He laughed and took a big glup.  He handed to bottle to his wife, who took a more polite sip, smiled softly, and gave the bottle back to me.

I could feel the anticipatory stare of the Argentine gentlemen.  He was excited to watch how the gringo would react to drinking the local booze.  Maybe I couldn’t handle it?  Maybe I’d throw up?  Maybe I would love it and drink half the bottle?  Regardless, he seemed think my reaction would be an entertaining experience for him and his wife.

I asked him, trying to stall, “Where did you get the licor de oro?”

He responded in a curt, but courteous tone “At the market.”

“Which market?” I asked?

“I don’t know, just try it.”

Around this time Monique, Melissa, and Bevin were looking over, themselves curious about what I was doing with an open bottle of booze and couple of strangers.

At this point, I thought it would be just rude not to take a sip.  I stared at the bottle trying to make out some sort of label, soon gave up, tilted my head back, and enjoyed a generous swig.

“You like it?” asked my new Argentine friend.

Indeed I did.  I was expecting gasoline, but it was quite smooth if not a little overly sweet.  I gave the bottle back to my new drinking buddy, who promptly signaled that all of us should enjoy a nip.  So the bottle was passed to Monique, Bevin, and Melissa, back to my new drinking buddy and his wife, back to me, and back to my Argentine drinking buddy for a final sip.  We thanked them for sharing their bounty with us. 

Then, as abruptly they appeared, they said goodbye and left.  I didn’t even get their names or think of breaking out the camera. 

Now that I had my first taste of licor de oro, I wanted some more.   So on the way back to Castro, Monique, Melissa, and I made a pit stop in Chonchi to enjoy a drink and the sunset.  

Once in Conchi, we walked around the main square and made our way to the waterfront where we found an oddly large building housing a café and restaurant.  We asked if they had the golden drink.  They did, but did charge for it – it was “a la casa.”  So we ordered a round of beers, enjoyed a beer, and were served our second taste of liquid gold.

A few hours after sunset, we made our way back to Castro.  Another unexpectedly entertaining day in Chiloe in the books.

Traveling Notes

Getting to the National Park from Castro was relatively easy; just verbally confirm the bus schedule with someone in the station before you plan your trip.  All the times posted at the station, while I was there, were incorrect.  When I brought this to the station manager’s attention, he responded “I should update those schedules,” but seemed to be in no hurry to do so.

Also, if you go to the park and want to walk oft-written about day long hike (the name escapes me, but it’s in the Lonely Planet), make sure you walk up the paved road a few kilometers.   It’s probably best to ask locals you may run into about the trailhead location; the park rangers can be absent for long periods of time and their materials are incorrect and misleading.
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